ORAL STATEMENT OF RON HONBERG, ARLINGTON, VA
ON BEHALF OF THE CAMPAIGN FOR MENTAL HEALTH REFORM
REGARDING S. 1194, "THE MENTALLY ILL OFFENDER AND CRIME REDUCTION ACT OF 2003"
BEFORE THE SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE - JULY 30, 2003
Chairman Hatch, Senator DeWine, Senator Leahy and distinguished members of the Committee, I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to testify at this important hearing. My name is Ron Honberg and I am Legal Director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).
I am also testifying on behalf of the Campaign for Mental Health Reform, a collaboration among 15 leading national mental health organizations, including consumers, family members, providers and other advocates.
The recently released report by President Bush's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health emphasizes what this Committee already knows - that our nation's jails and prisons have become "de-facto" psychiatric treatment facilities. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that 16% of all inmates in our nation's jails and prisons suffer from serious mental illnesses. And, sheriffs and police officers throughout the country will tell you that they frequently respond to people who are experiencing psychiatric crises.
In view of this, the impressive lineup at this hearing reflects the reality that the criminal justice community has become our strongest ally - and, in some cases, the leader - behind efforts to promote better mental health treatment and programs to reduce the unnecessary criminalization of people with mental illnesses. The landmark Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, convened by the Council of State Governments, is an illustration of just how important these issues have become. And, while compassion for a particularly vulnerable segment of our population is certainly evident in these efforts, the significant involvement of the criminal justice community reflects something more - recognition that reducing involvement of people with mental illnesses with criminal justice systems benefits not only those individuals but criminal justice systems and society as a whole.
Most people with mental illnesses who come into contact with law enforcement or criminal justice are not violent criminals. Most would not end up in these systems at all if they received appropriate treatment and supportive services.
Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the world. Yet sadly, fewer than half of all people with these illnesses have access to even minimally adequate treatment and services. With treatment, recovery is very possible. Without treatment, the consequences are frequently horrendous.
It is frankly unfair - and very poor public policy - to saddle criminal justice systems with responsibility for responding to people with mental illnesses in crisis. But, that's the reality today. Police officers around the country spend many hours transporting people to hospitals - and sitting for hours in emergency rooms - only to see the same people back out in the streets again a few hours later. The time these officers spend in doing so is time they are unable to spend fighting crime.
In 2000, this Committee demonstrated its commitment by enacting "America's Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project," a bill that authorized funding for Mental Health Courts. This bill represents the next logical step forward.
Mr. Chairman, we applaud you for scheduling a hearing to tackle this troubling problem. We are also deeply grateful to Senator DeWine for introducing legislation that provides an important approach to badly needed community reform. This legislation wisely recognizes that solutions will ultimately be found in communities across this country. What the federal government can do - and what good legislation must do - is to provide support for a wide range of collaborative community programs that provide avenues for effective and appropriate treatment.
I would like to use the remainder of my time to make the following brief points.
First, collaboration must occur among all elements of the criminal justice and mental health systems if efforts to reduce criminalization of persons with mental illnesses are to succeed. And, collaboration is also required at the federal level - between the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other key federal agencies.
Second, jail diversion and community reentry programs will succeed only when mental health services and supports are available to address the needs of individuals in these programs. A more thorough explanation of the types of services that are needed is contained in my written testimony.
Third, the best form of jail diversion is that which occurs prior to arrest and incarceration. For example, different approaches to pre-booking diversion have emerged, such as the nationally renowned Memphis (Tn.) police crisis intervention team (CIT) model, which has now been replicated in over 50 communities across the country.
Fourth, a wide range of post-booking diversion strategies exists, tailored to local needs and systems. Most notable among these are MH Courts, which, NAMI is pleased to report, have now been adopted in approximately 70 communities across the country. But, there are other successful models as well. For example, programs such as CASES in NY involve successful collaborations between parole and probation and mental health providers.
Finally, discharge planning and reentry services for individuals with mental illnesses reentering the community are critically important. Successful reintegration is frequently hampered by lack of services and the failure to restore benefits lost or suspended during incarceration. The Campaign applauds the sponsors of S. 1194 for recognizing this and ensuring that grant funds can be used to support vital community reentry services.
Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I look forward to responding to any questions you may have.